tv African Americans and Eugenics CSPAN March 24, 2018 9:46am-10:01am EDT
national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2018] >> you are watching american can on tv, all we c-span3. follow us on twitter to get our complete schedule and the latest history news. >> next, a discussion on eugenics. this was recorded at the national history meeting and washington, d.c. it's just under 15 minutes. at theour guest is history of medicine department. before we get into your history, i was just curious to know that johns hopkins, one of america's top medical schools and top hospitals has a history of medicine department within the school of medicine. why is it important for the school of medicine to study history of medicine?
ms. nurridin: some of the greatest physicians at johns hopkins believed understanding history is an important way to understand the events. the department was started in 1929. it is the first department of history of medicine in the united states. they really were excited about using knowledge of the past to benefit medical knowledge in the present. we keep that tradition going and have expanded on it in a lot of ways to think about the role of humanity and thinking about the current medical ethics and problems that come up in the hospital nowadays. we like to think we are a resource for the hospital. susan: how did you get particularly interested in this field? ms. nurridin: it was accidental. i used to work at georgetown university. i started shelving books. i actually started reading them instead he came across really
rich material about the history of eugenics and genetics and human extremities and and all the things that create a lot of ethical quandaries now that have interesting historical roots. susan: they will talk about eugenics. ms. nurridin: there is a lot of different definitions of what counts as eugenics. some of those definitions include the science of human improvement through better breeding. others to find it at the self-direction of human evolution. at its core it's about a set of beliefs and practices about improving the quality of individuals and populations for their collective future. susan: is it always controversial? ms. nurridin: it has been, yes. it is a tough call because there are a lot of questions of when do we sort of go wrong with these eugenics. a lot of historical actors i look at in my work really believed there was a right way to do eugenics and a wrong way to do eugenics. nowadays it is a bit more controversial because of the types of associations we have with the term. the questions never really go away.
the idea we can improve people on a biological level is still inflected in a lot of scientific practice. susan: as you pursue your phd you have a particular area of interest. would you explain what you are delving into? >> it is still a very preliminary but what i'm interested in looking at is the ways in which african americans in particular new -- use these ideas of eugenics and looked can be called racial science to think about racial improvement and racial equality. thinking about how science and medicine can be mobilized for the political project of black liberation. susan: what are some key dates in the study of eugenics and the black population? ms. nurridin: key dates -- a few that are important of the founding of certain types of eugenic institutions like the eugenics record office which was started in the early 1900s. the founding of the american eugenics society. there are a number of other types of organizations that are similar.
there is also the passage of compulsory sterilization laws, which gets a lot of coverage in the black press. a lot of interesting conversations coming up about whether or not the practice of sterilization was beneficial to the collective future of the race or if it would ultimately be oppressive. bc people move back and forth about a lot of these questions. susan: who are some of the key names important to your study across history? ms. nurridin: so, some include whatever call the architect of the eugenics movement. people like charles davenport, the founder of the eugenics records office. i look to a lot of african-american intellectuals. people like w.e.b. dubois, and william montague cobb, and anatomy professor at howard university and the first black physical anthropologist. he uses a lot of medical and anthropological knowledge to make arguments about what racial difference really does and does not do and how things like eugenics can be used to mobilize those for a greater good. susan: tell me about w.e.b
dubois. ms. nurridin: he is interested in thinking about how the collective race can be improved on a social level like angst through education and on a biological level. it is usually framed as a kind of respectability politics in terms of education and religion and moral improvement. there is a biological underpinning about who is actually fit enough to constitute this talent population. i have a number of interesting little nuggets from his work. one was an article from margaret sanger's birth-control review where he published in a special issue thousand titled "a negro number" about black people in
birth-control. something to the effect that like a vegetable -- he uses that comparison, quality of accounts and not mere quantity. having quality reproduction rather than just simply having children for the sake of having them. susan: people who are not familiar with him, what was the time period? ms. nurridin: the first half of the 20 century. he has a long career. one of his most important works is published in 1904, that he's riding until his death until the 1960's. he is covering a broad range. susan: what impact do you think he ultimately had on society and black history in america? ms. nurridin: he is a pivotal figure.
one of the architects of the black intellectual tradition. not alone, but because he was such a prolific author he really influenced a lot of disciplines. he has really important effects on the discipline of sociology. considered one of the founders of modern sociology as we understand it today. he has a broad impact. a lot of scholars read him because he is the foundation for a lot of thought in the 20th century. he has this really important intellectual impact, but as far as the history of eugenics he is one blip on a radar of a larger discourse. susan: you mentioned margaret sanger. who was she and what role did she play in the field of eugenics and black american population?
ms. nurridin: we sort of think back on her as the founder of what now is planned parenthood. she is one of the key activists in promoting the idea that women should have reproductive autonomy and control of the reproduction through the use of birth control, which at the time did not really include the pill like we think about it now, but other kinds of devices. included education and knowledge about how the reproductive system works. she's an important figure in my dissertation because she does some really interesting collaborative work with a number of african-american intellectuals. she collaborates with dubois, and a lot of local, smaller african-american organizations to develop birth-control clinics
in black neighborhoods. she is this really important figur a lot of the physicians in my dissertation prefer to her as this really important figure. one i will be talking about tomorrow is dr. emil buzzfield. he said he was so pleased with what he saw in this clinic and said a colored woman is to become the margaret sanger of her race. she has this really broad reach in these conversations about african-american birth control and eugenics, etc. she is also in the first half of the 20th century. she probably started in the teens to the 1940's and 1950's. susan: in the black community is she controversial today? ms. nurridin: key is controversial today because of the history of talking about my dissertation has seeped into the modern, more popular discourse about margaret sanger. there is a lot of controversy
because people make arguments that organizations like planned parenthood are trying to decimate the black population through things like birth control and abortion, etc. there isn't a lot of knowledge about this sort of collaborative past where margaret sanger and african-americans team up because they think the project of birth control is something that is beneficial to the future of the race. susan: what you hope will happen as a result of your work? ms. nurridin: i hope people will get a better understanding of the ways that eugenics, birth control these hereditarian ideas have a broader reach. these are interesting ways in which these ideas don't just exist among scientists and physicians and biologists but secret to the popular culture were people are invested in mobilizing these ideas for the betterment of humanity.
one thing i tell my students is during the 1910's, everyone was a eugenicist. almost everyone would say yes. that's a bit of a daunting thought for us now. in the first half of the 20 century, it seemed like a promising set of practices. susan: why did that change? ms. nurridin: one of the turning points i would argue -- it does shift in some ways. the turning point is world war ii and the outcomes of nazi atrocities. that is when people start moving away from the term.
a lot of the questions eugenicists are bringing up about using heredity and later genetics to talk about social issues does not really go away. it migrates and other fields by genetics and social sciences. people are still bound by these genetic terms and ways of thinking to talk about other kinds of problems. susan: is there a field of eugenics being practiced today or has it gone out of favor? ms. nurridin: i would argue it is still being practiced, but there are a number of people who would disagree because we don't call it eugenics anymore. a lot of people don't call it eugenics anymore. we think of these issues of reproduction and genetic technology as about individual choice rather than this sort of state-controlled vision of eugenics we saw in the first half of the 20th century. i would argue the questions eugenicists were asking in 1910 are some of the same questions we are talking about. things like cloning and designer babies and new genetic technologies like crispr. those are still being mobilized in butter conversations. the ideas don't really go away. susan: it sounds from your last
answer it is getting more complicated because of technology. do you see that -- these questions and are ethical considerations in a bigger and bigger for our society? ms. nurridin: i think it will get more collocated because there is a large portion of our society to think about on genetic terms. we talk about certain ideas being in our dna. we found the gene for this. there is a gene for people for schizophrenia. we are looking for genes for addiction. we were talking about people looking get genes to talk about things like homosexuality and trans identity because we tend to think of putting genes as a way to understand things that exist in the world. as long as we are trapped in thinking of those genetic terms, the eugenics questions will come in to play. if we think more broadly about the social and cultural and environmental causes, we might
be able to think beyond a genetic set of terms to think about a lot of issues. so, did will get more complicated. susan: important to know the history as a gets more complicated. thank you for giving us a brief look at eugenics and african-americans in our society. and american society. thank you for having me. you're watching american history tv, all we can, every weekend on c-span3. to join the conversation, like us on facebook arid -- facebook. the bible in washington, d.c., which opened on november 17 of 2017 has more than 3000 books on exhibit. the building occupies almost a entire city block. up next, we tour the bible in america exhibit.